The Tampa Bay Lightning are home, having returned from a 10-day trip through the Western Conference. The Bolts finished 3-2-0 after holding on for a win over Arizona on Saturday and coming up just short in their rally versus Colorado.
Prior to leaving for San Jose, Lightning head coach Jon Cooper said the trip would be a success if the Bolts could secure more points than games played.
Five games and six points later, Tampa Bay has to feel good about the end result despite finishing on a down note.
With four days off until the next contest, a home date with last year’s Western Conference finalist Chicago Blackhawks on Friday, let’s put a bow on the trip by dissecting what we learned over the weekend.
1. THESE BOLTS HAVE HEART
It would have been really easy for the Lightning to pack it in over the final 12-plus minutes in Colorado trailing 5-2 in the third period at the end of their 10-day trip and playing the second half of a back-to-back at Colorado’s altitude.
But this Tampa Bay team isn’t one to just lay down without a fight. The Bolts scratched and clawed and cut into the Avs’ seemingly safe lead. Brett Connolly scored with a little more than eight minutes to go to spark the comeback effort, and Nikita Kucherov made things very interesting with his extra-attacker goal at 18:58 of the final period to set up a wild finish in Colorado.
The Lightning had a couple opportunities but couldn’t level the score and salvage at least a point in the final minute. But the team showed a lot of character in the way it continued to battle for a full 60 minutes under trying circumstances.
“We didn’t quit,” Connolly said. “No one in here quit.”
The Lightning showed a similar resiliency in Los Angeles, scoring with 37 seconds left while trailing 3-1 and just missing a couple Grade-A opportunities late to tie.
“We’re a pretty confident group that we’re never out of games,” Connolly said. “Obviously, you don’t want to go down 4-2, 5-2, but again, that’s going to happen sometimes, and when it does happen we can’t just fold and give up…It’s fun when we’re playing like that. We almost did it again tonight. We’re confident we can do that. We’re never out of games, so that’s a good sign.”
2. THE SILENT ASSASSIN STRIKES AGAIN
Tyler Johnson leads the Lightning in scoring and was named to his first NHL All-Star Game. Nikita Kucherov grabs headlines due his stylish, creative play and his incredibly high production level over his first full season in the league.
Ondrej Palat has garnered less attention than his Triplets linemates, but the left winger quietly and confidently goes about his business everyday as the glue that holds the line together.
Palat hadn’t been scoring of late, going 11 games without scoring before the trip, yet he remains perfectly content setting up his teammates. Starting in San Jose with his game-winning goal, though, Palat regained his scoring touch, tallying four times over the five Western Conference games, including three times in the final two games of the trip.
“I guess, if we’re going points-wise, yeah, he’s behind them a little bit in points, but he’s right up there in plus-minus and eventually some of these have to go in there,” Cooper said prior to the game against the Kings.
Palat does a lot of the dirty work for the Triplets. He starts scoring plays. He chases down loose pucks. He’s an aggressive forechecker.
And he’s been one of the team’s most consistent performers all season.
You could make a really good case he’s one of our, if not our top forechecker,” Cooper said. “You throw him right up there with Callahan in that department.”
3. POOR TURNOVERS DOOMED THE BOLTS
Tampa Bay was undone by a slew of bad giveaways that led directly to Colorado goals.
The most glaring was Nikita Nesterov’s mishap early in the second period with the Lightning trailing 2-1. Retreating with the puck back into his own zone, Nesterov tried to backhand a pass to the blue line for Alex Killorn. The rookie defenseman, however, didn’t see Matt Duchene sneaking into the zone. Duchene took away Nesterov’s passing lane to Killorn and stole the wayward pass. In the blink of an eye, Duchene skated between the circles and fired a shot over Lightning goalie Andrei Vasilevskiy’s glove to push Colorado’s lead to two goals, the Avalanche scoring twice in 29 seconds to break the game open.
Following the game, Vasilevskiy was distraught after giving up five goals on just 18 shots. But, his teammates in front of him didn’t do him many favors Sunday evening.
“The things we did give up were big turnovers. They were Grade-A chances, and they made us pay,” Johnson said. “I thought for the most part we played a pretty good game except for those times.”
With so many young defensemen getting their first significant playing time in the NHL, turnovers are going to happen. How they respond after giving up the puck, however, will be a major component of their development.
“You just have to learn from it and move on,” Johnson said.